US believes Iran was ‘directly involved’ in dissident’s murder

Pompeo tweeted he found reports that Iranian diplomats were involved in the killing disturbing. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: The United States believes Iran’s Intelligence and Security Ministry was directly involved in the killing of an Iranian dissident last November in Turkey, a senior administration official told Reuters on Wednesday.

Masoud Molavi Vardanjani was shot dead on an Istanbul street on Nov 14, 2019. Citing Turkish officials, Reuters last week reported that two intelligence officers in Iran’s consulate in Istanbul had instigated his killing.

“Given Iran’s history of targeted assassinations of Iranian dissidents and the methods used in Turkey, the United States government believes that Iran’s Intelligence and Security Ministry was directly involved in Vardanjani’s killing,” a senior administration official told Reuters.

The United States had not previously disclosed its assessment on who might have been behind the incident.

A week after the killing, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had described it as “another tragic example in a long string of suspected Iran-backed assassination attempts” of Iranian dissidents. He had not elaborated further.

Late on Wednesday, Pompeo in a tweet said he found disturbing the reports that Iranian diplomats were involved in the killing of the dissident, but that they were “fully consistent” with their assignments.

“Iran’s ‘diplomats’ are agents of terror and have conducted multiple assassinations and bomb plots in Europe over the past decade,” Pompeo said.

A police report by the Turkish authorities into the killing, published two weeks ago, said Vardanjani had an “unusual profile”. It said he had worked in cyber security at Iran’s Defence Ministry and had become a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities.

Turkish authorities did not publicly accuse the Iranian government of involvement at the time, but the Turkish officials last week told Reuters that Ankara would now raise Vardanjani’s killing with Iran.

The US assessment comes amid its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, through which President Donald Trump aims to force Iran to limit its missile program and curb its use of proxy forces in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have remained high since Trump in 2018 unilaterally pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

In recent weeks, the United States has repeatedly tightened sanctions on Iran, despite calls from Iranian authorities, the United Nations and China asking it to ease them as the Islamic Republic became the hardest-hit nation in the Middle East by the coronavirus pandemic.